Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Published by Random House Audio on September 9, 2014
Genre(s): fiction, dystopia, post-apocalyptic, science fiction
Format & Pages: audiobook
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2014 National Book Award Finalist
A New York Times Bestseller
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek:“Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
I’m not sure what I expected Station Eleven to be like, but this book was not it. I’ve heard this described as “post-apocalyptic literary science fiction,” and although it didn’t make sense at the time, I now realize that it perfectly captures the essence of this novel.
“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”
Station Eleven follows a wide cast of characters along their journeys both before and after the pandemic that has wiped out the majority of humanity and civilization. The exploration of these characters is where this book really shined, as all of them were beautifully constructed, multi-layered, and quirky. People are endlessly fascinating and wonderfully varied, and St. John Mandel captured this quality perfectly, with entertaining and insightful points about humans and their relationships.
I find it difficult to critique the plot of Station Eleven. With at least five character view points and a lot of time shifts, this doesn’t follow a straight story arc from beginning to end. Each of the storylines are loosely connected, but it does jump around quite a bit. Usually with a story like that it would be difficult to follow in audiobook, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this was not the case here; it was always clear right away whose point of view and what timeline I was in. Additionally, Kirsten Potter did a fine job narrating this. I recognized her voice from The Couple Next Door audiobook and will definitely be on the lookout for her name when looking for future audiobooks to listen to.
My biggest issue with this novel is the world building, or lack thereof. Upon completion, I still had so many questions. In these types of stories, I find myself wanting to know more about what caused the epidemic that killed so many people. There were also several moments in the after sections that had me scratching my head and thinking, is that really realistic based on the premise laid out? And although I don’t believe the point of this book was to answer these questions, it would have helped me to more immerse myself in it if the setting felt more thorough.
A thought provoking exploration of humanity through the lens of the apocalypse, I’d recommend Station Eleven for those who like their post-apocalyptic stories heavy on character and light on world building.